BALTIMORE – The nation's Roman Catholic bishops, at an annual assembly Monday, gave two standing ovations to the Vatican's U.S. ambassador who was behind Pope Francis' controversial meeting with Kim Davis.
Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano received the warm reception as he made his customary address to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, his first major public appearance since the uproar over the Kentucky clerk. Vigano turns 75 in January, the age when bishops are required to submit their resignations to the pope.
The ambassador had invited Davis to be among those greeting the pope in the Vatican embassy in Washington last September during Francis' visit to the country. Her lawyer caused an uproar when he announced the meeting soon after Francis returned to Rome, describing it as a papal affirmation of Davis' approach to conscientious objection. The Vatican insisted the meeting was not an endorsement and said she was one of several dozen people who had greeted Francis.
Davis had briefly gone to jail rather than comply with a court order to issue same-sex marriage licenses, becoming a lightning rod for tensions over the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized gay marriage nationwide. The U.S. bishops' conference has never commented on the pope's meeting with Davis, and has not said what kind of accommodation they support for government officials with religious objections to gay marriage.
In his speech Monday in Baltimore, Vigano didn't mention Davis. He urged the bishops to persevere in working to "preserve a moral order in society" and said they should not "fall prey" to "secularized and increasingly pagan" practices in broader society. He said Catholic colleges and universities, specifically those founded by Jesuits, should do more to shore up Catholic identity at the schools.
"The course must always be set by Christ and his church — never allowing influence or wealth to dictate what might be an improper orientation for a Catholic school or university," Vigano said.
Jesuits run many of the most prominent U.S. Catholic colleges. The adherence to church teaching at Catholic universities and colleges has been a central issue in the culture wars within the American church.
In a separate speech, the president of the bishops' conference, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, spoke generally about conscientious objections, but did not go into specifics. Dozens of U.S. dioceses and Catholic nonprofits are among faith groups suing the Obama administration over the birth control coverage requirement in the Affordable Care Act. President Barack Obama created an accommodation that requires insurers to provide the coverage in place of objecting religious nonprofits. The U.S. Supreme Court recently announced it was taking up lawsuits challenging the accommodation, with arguments scheduled in March.
"What a great tragedy it will be if our ministries are slowly secularized or driven out of the public square because of short-sighted laws or regulations that limit our ability to witness and serve consistent with our faith," said Kurtz, of Louisville, Ky.
The public sessions of the bishops' meeting run through Tuesday, when the conference is expected to vote on a document the bishops issue during every presidential election that aims to provide moral guidance to Catholic voters.